When will they ever learn? Women, men and peace-building

About the author
Lesley Abdela is a journalist and campaigner for women’s equality.

The seventh International Women's Day since the passage of the fabled United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 arrives on 8 March 2008 at a time when the gap between the resolution's fine aspirations and their practical accomplishment seems to be widening. This is particularly clear in the area of conflict resolution and peace-building.

Resolution 1325 - passed unanimously on 31 October 2000 - was and remains a landmark declaration by the international community in favour of women's civic equality. The resolution calls on all United Nations member-states to ensure the full participation of women and the integration of a gender perspective in peace and security, policy-making, conflict management and peace-building. It urges UN member-states to increase the representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.

Lesley Abdela is an independent consultant in post-conflict reconstruction, with on-the-ground experience in Kosova, Aceh, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nepal. She recently spent six months in Kathmandu as Gencap senior gender adviser to United Nations humanitarian agencies

Also by Lesley Abdela in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's war on women" (17 July 2005)

"1325: deeds not words" (16 October 2005)

These recommendations are founded on the historic recognition that women - if they are given the opportunity, authority and resources - can make the difference in guaranteeing that conflicts can be prevented or (once they arise) resolved, and that peace-building can be sustained and successful.

Yet there are so many areas in the world where such a recognition is being ignored even where it could make a real difference on the ground. Where, for example, are women in Kenya's painful efforts to overcome its post-election nightmare?

But the pattern goes much wider. This week I arrived home in Britain after six months in Kathmandu. In Nepal, women have - despite energetic lobbying by women NGO leaders - been conspicuous by their exclusion from the peace talks involving the "seven-party alliance" that has been attempting to settle disputes related to the long-running Maoist and more recent Terai armed campaigns.

In Sri Lanka too, women's groups lobbied both domestic political leaders and the Norwegians who were acting as peace-brokers in the hard work of bringing the country's interminable civil war to an end - but they made no progress, and the killing goes on. In Kosovo and Serbia, women organised and pressured on several levels (their own politicians, at the European parliament, at the International Contact Group led by United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari) to demand inclusion as equal partners in negotiations on the status of Kosovo. The contact group was composed of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, thus including four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; yet Resolution 1325 played no part in its considerations.

What do Nepal, Kosovo and Sri Lanka (and Kenya) have in common? These are states which have experienced terrible civil wars or severe internal conflicts, yet in which half or more of their populations - Nepalese women, Kosovar women, Sri Lankan women, Kenyan women - have been excluded from their peace processes. What has happened to UNSCR 1325, passed unanimously by the Security Council to include women as equal partners in peace processes?

Also in openDemocracy on UN Resolution 1325, a series of articles by Rosemary Bechler, Seda Muradyan, Suzanne Zwingel, and others The problem of the under-representation of women could equally be defined as the over-representation of men. The comment of one woman from a conflict-zone at a recent conference at the Joan B Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice has wide relevance: "In current peace processes the peace is not for the people, it is for the male power groups. This is the wrong focus."

Indeed, the art of peace-building is far more subtle than the practice of warfare (in which men in power have had centuries of experience). It requires almost opposite characteristics: among them patience, creative dialogue, imagination, empathy, attention to the critical minutiae, and avoidance of grandstanding.

The gap between Resolution 1325's words and the reality of today's unresolved conflicts creates a challenge for everyone committed to democracy and human rights: how to trigger determined commitment from politicians to implement 1325 (and its European parliament sister resolution, passed on 30 November 2000)?

International Women's Day in 2008 is an occasion to highlight need and fuel energy. It is time to call, email and send text-messages to UN Security Council members to introduce an amendment update UNSCR 1325. This would set targets and make the resolution enforceable, such that by 2015 all peace talks must (and not just should) comprise at least 40% women and at least 40% men (the rest either women or men). This would ensure that no more than 60% of any one gender is appointed to the top decision-making levels of international peace-talk teams.

In 2005, I wrote an article for openDemocracy which said: "the British suffragette slogan ‘deeds not words' keeps running through my head. Both [the UN and European parliament] resolutions lack sanctions against non-compliance: their implementation relies on advocacy, persuasion and goodwill. And resolutions alone are insufficient - it is the implementation that counts" (see "1325: deeds not words", 16 October 2005).

Two and a half years on, the situation is unchanged - as are the underlying realities of conflict in the world. Women really can make the difference between peace and war, and to make peace last. Today, the suffragette slogan links in my head with the haunting words of the anti-war song: "When will they ever learn?" The answer is, only when women persuade them.